Handheld Computers in the field

What’s so special about it?


By Dr. Hans Le Fever, eNovITe, The Netherlands




The advent of computing devices that can be easily carried along, away from desks, power outlets and network cables has opened up a new era of computing.


It provides digital capabilities for people whose place of work is often or mostly outside the office. This can take the form of capturing data, e.g. entering numbers such as meter readings or more textual information such as equipment status.

But equally the new devices can provide information, for example instructions how to start or stop a piece of equipment or drawings and other reference details.


Several advantages become clear once information can be handled on the spot instead of remotely in an office or control room:


The marketplace offers a wide variety of digital devices that can support and enable the above mentioned benefits. This ranges from mobile phones with added functionality to personal organisers or PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistants).

Depending on the specific activities that are to be supported, different digital handheld devices are needed. Specialist advice is required to ensure the device meets all environmental and ergonomic requirements are met.


Although the above mentioned benefits seem generally applicable and achievable, their realisation does not come automatically. A mobility project has a number of potential pitfalls that differ from projects on desktop IT. Most significant points are:

  1. User buy-in for the acceptance of an application on handhelds is crucial. There are too many examples of PDA loss, damage or malfunctioning to be accidental. A range of worker fear factors lies behind this. A well thought-out introduction strategy will take the change management issue into account.
  2. The PDA differs significantly in capabilities from a laptop or desktop, witness the lack of a mouse and its small screen size. This puts special demands on the user interface of the application and it prohibits direct transfer of desktop code to the PDA environment.
  3. In common with desktop applications, the true value of this kind of an investment derives from having accurate data. Proper data management practices are a critical success factor.
  4. For projects with wireless access to the corporate network, security is a special challenge, technically as well as organisationally. In an implementation project full cooperation is required from those responsible for network security.
  5. Developing the business case need to take into account rapid obsolescence of equipment and long learning curves to full exploitation of the new capability.


In short, handheld computers in the field offer a great opportunity for innovation in an area underserved by IT. Reaching that potential requires a well thought out benefits realisation approach.